What is Socialism?


One thing that has become indelibly clear these past few months is liberalism’s failure to respond to the crisis in Gaza. As Israel rains unguided bombs and white phosphorus onto Palestinian civilians, annihilates their hospitals, and murders their children, the institutional response ranges from toothless disapproval to outright cheerleading. “Israel has the right to defend itself,” and Gaza does not. But no matter how strongly some factions—left leaning parties, the United Nations—may voice their opposition, they lack the means of realising that opposition in material terms. Next to US pressure, their words carry little weight. The onslaught continues.

The time is again ripe for asking, how can anyone go on to support a system so comfortable with suffering? So capable at producing it? The fissures are already starting to show: millions of people in the streets, politicians sacked, dissent in the White House, old lines of propaganda severed, new lines of solidarity weaved together. As we withdraw from these wasted institutions, new opportunities, alliances, and ideas suddenly seem viable. What might flourish in these cracks?

Reactionaries will continue to blame those with the least power, others will monopolise their trust in a feeble parliament. But neither approach addresses te pūtake, the root, of the problem.


Here’s a key starting point for socialism: politics cannot be isolated from economics. Any basis of authority requires the security of food, water, and shelter. Any serious authority requires control over the materials, distribution, and labour behind those resources. Everything else—such as military power—comes second: no army can exist without a meal. In other words, whoever controls the flow of these assets has conclusive leverage over everyone else. School and school teacher, baker and bakery, politician and parliament. Under capitalism property is held in the private hands of a few, resulting in the dispossession of the many. In these times of the climate crisis, we have seen a mere handful of fossil fuel tycoons alter the entire course of humanity. Our comparative lack of sovereignty is astounding. Restoring justice to the powerless, then, would require everyone to have equal access to the essential conditions for life. The fight against colonialism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and ecocide cannot be won without transforming this imbalance. The socialist demand to seize the means of production! isn’t a directive to simply wheelbarrow your boss into an open pit-mine—it’s an appeal for self-determination.

Capitalism’s primary orientation is toward the accumulation of profit rather than the satisfaction of human need. The fallout of this design is catastrophic, even for itself. Acceleration is the enemy of stability—in ravaging the natural world the system undermines its own foundations. Oil refineries sink into the Louisiana coastline, logging operations flee Australian bushfires. Carpet and wool factories in Te Tairāwhiti close plants indefinitely in the aftermath of cyclone Gabrielle. Likewise, neoliberal policies threaten funding for hospitals, schools, public transport, and childcare—ripping away the necessary materials from the very people who keep the system going. Any system that strikes at its own supports falls inevitably into crisis, primes itself for collapse.

We exist for the sake of capitalism, it does not exist for the sake of us. The poor, the dispossessed, the unhoused are not its purpose. 


The question of economic and political power can also allow us to sweep away the old narratives of so-called socialist countries. Socialism is the collective ownership over the organs of production. The working class—including those unable to work—has direct control over how resources are acquired, processed, and distributed. Stalin’s USSR and its descendants (China under Mao, Cuba under Castro) may have distributed wealth according to a planned economy, but their production methods remained thoroughly coercive. Bureaucrats requisitioned grain from peasants and profits from factory workers. Labour councils were disbanded and trade unions became arms of the state machine. This was not only a failure to be democratic, but to satisfy the main criterion for socialism.

What’s more, there is no such thing as socialism in one country. Marx and Engels were clear about this in the Communist Manifesto, ending with the resounding imperative, “working people of all countries, unite!” Capitalism is international, so all countries are bound in a vast web of trade routes and supply chains. A state alone suffocates. National borders were drawn up by the vicissitudes of empires cleaving cultures and terrain, so it makes no sense to adhere to those constructs. That is a project of isolation, not liberation.

This isn’t an attempt to rewrite history, either. Throughout the Russian Revolution and beyond leftist critics inveighed against this sorry state, others admitted to their departures. In 1921 Lenin himself introduced a policy for “state capitalism.” Visiting some fourteen years later, the US revolutionary Emma Goldman would write: “there is no Communism in the U.S.S.R. Not a single Communist principle, not a single item of its teaching is being applied by the Communist party there.” 

Socialism’s vision

Sometimes when socialists invoke the workers, certain images spring to mind: white men with muscled arms, mallets and overalls, hands covered in dirt. This is a mystification. Today, a worker is most likely to be a poor woman of colour. And that’s just at the point of production—long before anyone arrives at their workplace, thousands of hours of reproductive labour have brought them to that point. Children must be fed and raised before they’re able to work. They must be educated when they’re able and taken care of when they’re not. All this work, rendered invisible, keeps everything afloat.

This is politics from below. Recognising the conditions of work means standing in solidarity with the oppressed in every way life is experienced. The raw mechanics of capital does not insulate language, culture, or the body from its violence. And so its opponent cannot be an isolated movement but one that blooms new perspectives and voices. For example, the disability community could teach socialism to reimagine the physical world. 

Liberalism is happy to give everybody rights (at times), but it has no mechanism for equally distributing means. We have a right to three meals a day, but no guarantee to access them. Given we produce enough food for 10 billion people each year, there’s no good reason for this. Even those rights secure today might be discarded by the government of tomorrow—to one’s indigenous sovereignty and language. Justice cannot be voiced. It exists only in the act.

Our theory of change

Capitalism is not an immoral system. That is, it does not operate according to a set of moral laws or dictums. Rather, it is amoral—the system functions only for the pursuit of profit. This is a small change in words, but a big change in philosophy. Capital cannot be confronted by lifestyle changes or ethical consumption. It does not respond to appeal. And it’s the same in our relationships: how we take care of each other can’t be limited to just listening, bringing each other food, or providing comfort, but organising in ways that our lives can be sustained meaningfully. Care is as much an arm around someone’s shoulder as it is one that holds a picket sign.

Nor should parliament have the right to absorb all of our political attention. Not when it has surrendered so many critical areas of power to banks, media companies, and investors. And especially not when it so openly disregards the will of the people. The millions of marchers for Palestine have charged public opinion, but not the governments supposed to serve them. Most Americans (around 60 percent) support a ceasefire, yet the White House continues to overrule them. It does not deserve the name of democracy.

In the breach between people and their politicians, new movements are being formed. Movements that will push crucial ideas into the mainstream about the imperial wrath on brown bodies and the complicity of our institutions. This is how the needle shifts. Socialists, feminists, environmentalists, queer-rights activists, and indigenous peoples moving arm-in-arm through the streets. Heading towards a radical remaking.